Episode 1: Is this perfect for what it is? Probably. Leave it to the BBC, Judi Densch, and a bunch of actresses (and some actors) recognizable for their roles in Jane Austen adaptations, Miss Marple, and the James Bond franchise to crank out this fantastic miniseries based on some late 19th century novellas. Finally, feminism doesn’t look like revisionist history, rather working in and through the period in which it’s based to weave a believable, clever, and enjoyable narrative about the lives of reigning women in a small but very serious town in 1840s England. Episode 1 makes it clear from the outset that Cranford is a town unlike any other, and it knows it. The women are in charge, and they aim to keep it that way. Their attitude isn’t so much different from that generally depicted in pieces like this but just amplified. Does anyone really get the sense that the wise women in these Victorian-era books, films, and miniseries don’t believe themselves to be superior to men? Cranford is different chiefly in having its women come right out and say so. And in fairness to them, they’re right about it in at least the sense in which they mean it. Here we also have an unusual acknowledgment of things taboo and bodily, both in terms of the sensual and the…gross. When the Jenkyns women receive a gift of oranges – a wonderful and rare treat – they discuss the various ways of eating them. Deborah is disgusted by the implications inherent in “sucking” the juice from a hole in the rind. Knowing that Matilda and Mary will do so regardless of her convictions, she suggests that they retire to their rooms where they can enjoy their fruit “in private.” The gross element comes into play when a cat inadvertently swallows an expensive piece of lace and the women are compelled to expedite its digestion and then fetch it; plenty of details here, both aural and visual. The most powerful and meaningful moment in the episode occurs when Deborah shirks tradition and rules of etiquette by accompanying Jesse Brown to the funeral for the Brown daughter. Even in Cranford, rules are rules, but only in Cranford, apparently, they’re meant to be broken for the higher good.
Episode 2 begins the mid-series tragedies with the death of the Hutton boy and Deborah, following the revelation that a railway is being built that will run through Cranford and forever scar not only the land but the town itself. Add a declined proposal and deception from a “friend” and you have a very disappointed Cranford indeed. The role of the doctor – the new one in particular – becomes of paramount importance, and the direction of the episode plays with viewer expectation through this fact. There’s a collapse, a doctor is called for, and he enters a separate house with a separate tragedy. The series always keeps enough of a balance, albeit uneven, with the jovial. In this case Mrs. Forrester’s beloved cow is rescued from a ditch and cared for as only the sweet widow could do. In an episode filled with human tragedy, the series makes it clear that its characters aren’t above extending proper care and affection even toward their beasts.
The true spirit of the town starts coming into full blossom in Episode 3, however, when the thread involving Mr. Carter and Harry develops further. It is here that Cranford as a series starts making its powerful statement regarding poverty and wealth. Mr. Carter insists on offering an otherwise ill-situated young boy an education in order to lift him out of a life of misery and show him what it is to give of oneself. Even the rich and calloused Lady Ludlow is not immune to the gesture, doing her part to rescue Harry’s dad from jail (“gaol,” I suppose). This mini-narrative within the series reminds one of the young doctor Yasumoto and the titular doctor in Kurosawa’s film Red Beard. Both stories surely would not be what they are without the writings of Dostoevsky, who drew attention to human destitution but never without making a firm moral statement. Did anyone do better to insist on ethics no matter what the circumstances? It must be admitted that Alexander Solzhenitsyn followed suit well (what is it with those Russians?), and the lessons Mr. Carter teachers Harry about poaching versus learning and sacrificing speaks powerfully. This episode is not without the visible consequences of town gossip, however, and those consequences have indirect bearing even on the Mr. Carter and Harry story. Separate from that, though, the presence of the (relatively) handsome Dr. Harrison spurs gossip and visions of love from more than one woman – three, to be precise, and each representing the three phases of womanhood, incidentally. His naivete is here at fault even more than the imaginations of the women. More than any kind of fault, though, the episode illustrates just how much of a woman’s world is the town of Cranford, and how no amount of preparation can amply prepare a man for it.
Episode 4 is that in which the consequences of gossip and mistaken affections play out fully. Another downer in many ways, it’s Mary Smith’s time to shine. Her power through the written word reveals that she is a true Cranford woman, one who will carry on the tradition of the Jeknyns sisters as a moral authority who is unafraid to call out anyone (including a man) who has erred and to put herself on the line for the sake of others. Though Dr. Harris’ foolish optometrist friend clearly fancies Mary, the implication is that she’s too tied down by self-imposed responsibilities to indulge in love; or at least not with a joker like this guy. Matty’s financial woes through the bank failure offers another commentary on economics that is no less relevant today. Secure for years through an inheritance, the errors of others have now compromised Matty’s status and put her future in jeopardy.
If Episode 5 doesn’t make you want to be a better person, you have no soul. Loose ends are tied up with remarkable precision and apparent foresight – no less than that of Arrested Development, as odd as it is to mention that show in reference to this one. So much goodness comes out of each character here that one cannot but want to risk the dangers of living in such a time in order to be surrounded by such people of praiseworthy character. The gesture of Matty’s friends on her behalf is simple but couldn’t be more beautiful. The character of Mr. Carter becomes a true Christ figure, even closing the gap that had previously separated the poor and the rich. The effect of his example on both sides is permanent and unmistakable. Then there are the other romances that work out and reunions that finally happen, sort of side orders in a feast of happy completion; although apparently there’s a sequel half-recorded on our DVR. It seems doubtful it could reach the heights of this original. This series is very suited to its medium, a series. It’s lifelike, cyclical, ongoing. Death is no stranger to this world, but neither is new life. Change is confirmed to be the most difficult thing for any human to experience as well as the most exciting. Perhaps above all, Cranford shows that every single event, whether good or bad, is merely an opportunity for human action, whether good or bad. To blame the events of life upon the events themselves is irresponsibility of the worst sort. Behind every effect is a cause, and in front of every effect is a fork in the road. Since it would be too cheesy to say here that “all roads lead back to Cranford,” let’s just say it’s a great show and people should watch it more than once.